EU declares war on online bullies

By Silke Katenkamp, DPA,

Brussels : The torrent of abuse was triggered by a pair of new shoes. Alina bought them because her best friend Alex already had the same brand of footwear. Unfortunately, this did not go at all well with Alex who was quick to vent her anger.

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Alina realised this when she logged in as usual on to SchuelerVZ – a popular social Internet platform in Germany for schoolchildren and their pals.

“You rotten bitch” was the post left behind on Alina’s virtual notice board and before she knew what was happening, the girl found herself on the receiving end of a tirade of hatred.

Alina was insulted by other web users on a daily basis and fake images and photos cropped up on her site.

Alina’s fate is not unusual and according to the European Commission in Brussels, one in five of all children in German schools has been subjected to what experts call cyber-bullying at some point.

The phenomenon of posting hurtful or embarrassing messages on the Internet or sending insulting emails in a bid to intimidate the victims is even more widespread in some other EU countries.

Research indicates that one in three schoolchildren in Britain has experienced the problem, while 50 percent of all school-age children in Poland say they have been subject to ridicule or threats online.

The EU recently staged a “Safer Internet Day” in a bid to encourage children and teachers around the world to discuss the hazards of harmful postings and Internet use.

The EU Commission is backing the campaign which began in 2004. Originally, 15 EU countries were participating, but their number has since been swollen by organisations from countries outside Europe such as Australia, Venezuela and Egypt. Funding for these projects was mostly provided by the countries themselves.

“Cyber-bullying is a problem which much be taken seriously, particularly in Europe,” said Viviane Reding, EU commissioner for media affairs. Online networks such as Facebook, SchuelerVZ and YouTube which can be used by teenagers to send or post messages, image or videos, are an integral part of everyday life for many youngsters.

The number of regular social network users in the EU alone is estimated by Reding to have increased between 2007 and 2008 by 35 percent to 41.7 million. Experts say the number will increase to around 110 million users by 2012.

“The networks are particularly attractive for young people and it is therefore important that these are protected from cyber-bullying,” said Reding.

Since 1999, the EU has launched a range of programmes aimed at protecting young people who surf the Internet. The revised “Safer Internet Programme” which started this year will have cost 55 million euros ($70 million) by 2013.

The money is being used mainly to finance projects such as online networks or advice hotlines in the member states. One such initiative in Germany is called which is run by parents, teachers and pupils who seek to warn others of the perils of cyber-bullying.

“Online bullying has definitely increased dramatically over the past few years,” said worker Joachim Kind. The problem is widespread in many schools, but secondary school pupils aged between 12 and 17 are the worst-affected. “The victims suffer a lot,” said Kind.

The teasing and taunting of fellow pupils has been a part of school life since time immemorial.

“Yet in the old days it was restricted to the playground. Cyber-bullying takes the abuse right into the victim’s home. They are exposed to it the whole time,” said Kind. “The humiliation is made much worse by the fact that the taunting takes place on the Internet for all to see.”

The EU has since managed to obtain assurances from the leading social network providers such as Facebook, MySpace and studiVZ (a German social platform for students) that they will do their utmost to prevent cyber-bullying. Agreement to this effect was reached in Luxembourg.

“This means the providers themselves will be responsible,” said Reding. The signatories have agreed to install buttons on their websites, enabling victims to immediately report any online abuse. The personal profiles of young teenagers will no longer be researchable using search engines such as Google and those of children aged under 13 will be disallowed entirely.

Kind believes the measures are a step in the right direction, but maintains that cyber-bullying can only be effectively prevented by alerting people to the dangers it poses.

“The parents can play a vital role,” he said. “They must ask their children what they are doing all day when they surf the web.”

For Megan Meier, from the US state of Missouri, the reforms come too late. The case of the 13-year-old made headlines worldwide in 2006 after she committed suicide. For months beforehand, she had been subjected to continual harassment and regular abuse on the social network MySpace by a user called Josh Evans.

The name, Evans, was an alias for an irate mother named Lori Drew, 49, who had set up a fake account in retribution for Megan Meier having allegedly spread gossip about her own daughter.